How costumes in period dramas shape our perception of royalty

Costuming choices can reinforce well-worn and familiar royal stereotypes

Published May 30, 2021 8:00PM (EDT)

Emma Corwin in "The Crown" (Des Willie/Netflix)
Emma Corwin in "The Crown" (Des Willie/Netflix)

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Our version of the present-day royals is carefully constructed and curated. Kept at bay behind a red velvet rope, we will never get a glimpse into the bedrooms and offices of regal power. That is, other than in period dramas.

In film and TV dramatizations of familiar royal tales, the audience is presented with a romanticized and glamorized vision of royal history. Sumptuous silks and gilded homes make up the lush material world on screen. In reality, they are far removed from the bed bugs, tedious political documents and the stench of recently used chamber pots.

The visuals are so rich that audiences will often remember the wonderful costumes, forgetting the the bloody details of the Wars of the Roses or the shady political machinations of royal court.

From the high ruffs and jeweled headpieces of the Tudors to the ballgowns and tiaras of modern royals on screen, these costume provide a glossy veneer to people and history that is, at times, quite dark. These individuals become characters in costumes. They become nothing more than well dressed princes and princesses, kings and queens in stories that often overtake reality.

Royal stereotypes

Costuming choices can reinforce well-worn and familiar royal stereotypes. If you imagine Queen Victoria in mourning, you might envision Judi Dench in black silk and a widow's cap. Thinking about Elizabeth I might make you picture a regal Helen Mirren in a ruff protruding from her neck. And party-loving Charles II brings to mind the lustrous curly locks of Rufus Sewell in a long wig.

Costumes can also radically challenge and rewrite how we view past royals. Portraits by Hans Holbein of Henry VIII in his later years and early screen depictions have are of a corpulent king and bejeweled monarch. Joan Bergin's costuming of Jonathan Rhys Meyers's Henry VIII in "The Tudors" (2007-2010) instead included lots of leather, tight doublets, and open shirts. Bergin's costumes transformed the serial groom into a sexy sportsman, rescuing this younger incarnation of Henry VIII from historical oblivion.

Dressing up like Diana

"The Crown" is the latest screen delight to offer us a glimpse behind the royal curtain and fans can't seem to get enough of Princess Diana, portrayed by Emma Corrin.

Unlike Henry VIII, Diana was in no need of an image update. The princess was a fashion symbol in her lifetime, and The Crown's season four costume designer, Amy Roberts, took the opportunity to recreate some of Diana's genuine iconic outfits. Roberts' recreation of Diana's early wardrobe was remarkably faithful, treading a fine line between historical fact and fantasy.

Such was the furor over the fashion that brands have seized upon the outfits, creating wearable versions for a new generation of Diana fans who are eager to emulate the late princess. In October 2020, Corrin hit the cover of Vogue in a Diana-esque 1980s concoction and copies of Diana's iconic sheep jumper can be purchased for an eye-watering £250. While Diana's 1980s chic (now considered period costume) has enjoyed a revival in mainstream fashion, it resonates with a desire to cosplay as a royal.

Costumed characters

Even in historical documentaries about the monarchs, which are framed as authentic and factual accounts of Britain's royal past, historians like Lucy Worsley are renowned for using dressing up as a way to breathe life into long-dead monarchs. While Worsley's "dress-up box" version of history may not be for everyone, it plays into a desire to humanize historical characters. Like the living history interpreters that (before COVID) inhabited the Historic Royal Palaces sites that Worsley oversees, donning a doublet and hose resuscitates royals who we can otherwise only view in oil paintings.

Costume may help us time travel, but by lacing up a corset, tying on a ruff, or even donning a Sloane ranger Barbour jacket, a modern-day human being cosplays as royal, rendering that person a caricature. The costume creates a distance between the real person with all their problematic behavior and turns them into beautifully dressed symbol of a bygone Britishness. There is certainly magic in the costumes but that magic can obscure the darker parts of royal history, which should be remembered.

Serena Dyer, Lecturer in History of Design and Material Culture, De Montfort University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

By Serena Dyer

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